Tucked into a backroom of the Congress Palace in Morocco's medieval city of Fes, 50 small pairs of hands work at row upon row of looms, clipping carpets for tourists. Some are age 6, some younger. Their arms are scarred where the scissors have missed the wool.
"They pay Mum, not me," says 6-year old Rabie, who works 10 hours a day for $14 a month. "If they see me talking to you, they'll wrap my knuckles."
The girls are part of an army of over a million child workers in Morocco, who for centuries have created works of art the world finds irresistible.
But as part of his efforts to bring Morocco into the 21st century, Morocco's young King Mohammed VI has launched what he calls a holy war for education - to get children off the workbench and into the classroom. In communities without schools, mosques have been ordered to teach reading skills to half the population that is illiterate. And the problem is so great, officials at the United Nation's International Labor Organization in Geneva rank Morocco alongside China and India as a state tolerating one of the worst forms of child labor.
The ILO's Frans Roselaers says the dangers of carpet weaving should be likened to those of prostitution or forced army conscription.
But as the children in the Fes clipped away at the carpets, Western delegates gathered late last month in the same building, overhead, under the patronage of the king. They met to discuss the disbursement of 1.5 billion euros ($1.4 billion) in aid. Participants at the "Moroccan Civil Society Workshop" included the US Embassy in Rabat and even a Dutch charity, the Bernard Van Leer Foundation, for young children.
Few child workers hear the words of concern. During breaks at the Fes workshop, Western delegates head to the state handicraft bazaar to bargain for prized "little hands" carpets. The conference, whose topics include "transparency and credibility," is hosted by the Moroccan Ministry for Human Rights, which denies the conference center also doubles as a workhouse.
"The premises belong to the state, and no one under the age of 18 is allowed to work there," says the kingdom's human-rights minister, Mohammed Aujjar, as he climbs into his chauffeur-driven black limousine after leaving the conference. "Child labor is forbidden in Morocco."
The delegates met the same week that a new international labor law, ILO Convention 182, requiring the elimination of hazardous child labor, came into force.
"We find girls as young as 5 or 6 in the Fes Congress Palace, and the government knows it," says Raja Berrada of the UN child agency, UNICEF. "There are serious health concerns. These girls are malnourished and stand all day at the loom."
Under pressure from monitoring bodies like the ILO, Morocco is coming under increasing pressure to act. The European Union's largest recipient of aid in the Arab world, more than 5 million of Morocco's citizens live on less than a dollar a day. Its ministers are better paid than many of their European counterparts.
But employers in Fes, the Islamic world's most complete medieval city, say human rights campaigners are jeopardizing the survival of the kingdom's ancient fine arts. Small hands, they say, are better than big ones at weaving. And in a kingdom where millions are unemployed, they argue their "apprenticeship" at least gives children a trade. Their futures, says Ben Makhlou, a Fes potter and president of the handicraft manufacturers association, compares favorably to the squadrons of children trawling trains peddling single cigarettes, or the homeless young passing the nights sheltering beneath the palace walls.
Despite a new law that makes school compulsory, Morocco admits it has 538,000 child workers under the age of 13. In fact it is far higher. The figures exclude the hundreds of thousands of little girls sold by their parents in the countryside to work in the cities as child maids. The practice is so common, kitchens in Morocco are specially built with child-high sinks and workbenches. Known in Morocco as petites bonnes, they are treated as slaves.
"They beat me and waved scalding irons at me," says 10-year-old Asma, who has now found refuge and a cuddle with the charity, Bayti. "They never let me home for holidays - even when Daddy died, they said I had to stay." At the age of 6, her father had packed her into a bus for the journey alone from her village 250 miles north to the Casablanca metropolis in return for $5 a week.
New ad campaign
With the backing of Morocco's royals, a child nongovernmental organization - the Moroccan Observatory for Child Rights - has launched a television ad campaign to persuade employers to send their child maids to school. It stigmatizes the servitude that until now has been deemed a deep-rooted tradition, and offers children like Asma a help line.
The response has been overwhelming. Calls to the Observatory are running at over a thousand a day from parents denied access to their children held in the cities; neighbors reporting the screams; houseboys alleging sexual abuse; and even calls from desperate girls like Asma. The Observatory says it is setting up a network of lawyers across the kingdom to pursue cases of abuse in court.
But critics charge the campaign does not go far enough - it stops short of demanding an outright ban on child maids, or enforcing the law against the parents of the 2.5 million 6- to 11-year-olds who do not go to school.
Parents argue that they are offering their children the chance of a lifeline out of rural poverty. "What's the point of an education, when you can't get a job?" asks Abdallah from the town of Fkih ben Salah, in the central plains of Morocco. He sold his eldest daughter, Fatima, age 8, to a wealthy household in the capital, Rabat. With six mouths to feed, he needed the money.
With 5 million Moroccans living on less than a dollar a day and tens of thousands each year fleeing the kingdom as boat people to Europe, parents are resorting to child labor for income - some even sending their children to southern Europe to work.
"The Moroccan man conceives a lot of children to have a lot of income," says Ahmed Dialmi, a sociology professor at Fes University.
Despairing of bringing children to school, UNICEF is now taking teachers into the workhouses. At the Congress Palace, UNICEF is implementing a new project to teach the carpet-weavers how to read. "We don't want to damage Moroccan handicrafts in anyway," says Ms. Berrada. "It is a beautiful unique tradition and one of the major sources of income for the country, but we must protect children's rights."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society